Friday, March 21, 2008

Ankara targets Gulf investors

Eighty five years after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and in a sign of where financial power now lies in the Middle East, Istanbul's Ciragan Palace Hotel, once the residence of the Ottoman sultans, is now owned by Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (Adia).

The hotel will host an Islamic finance conference in late May, which will give GCC investors another chance to highlight the cash and expertise they can bring to the country.

Ankara is a willing recipient, seeing the Gulf as a natural source of much-needed funds. For Gulf investors, there is plenty of potential too. With a population of 73 million and strong links to both central Asia and Europe, Turkey is becoming a key market for GCC investors.

Overseas cash will ease the path of Ankara's privatisation plans, helping it to meet its job-creation targets and to sustain economic growth that has averaged 6.6 per cent a year since 2002, when the Justice & Development Party (AKP) came to power.

"Turkey is a large country and has a significant appetite for growth, and we need to finance that growth," says Turkey's Economy Minister Mehmet Simsek.

The AKP's economic reform programme began as Turkey started to recover from a severe recession, and selling state assets is just one part. The government is also revising the constitution, introducing social security and labour law reforms, and updating the commercial code to reduce income and corporate taxes.

These changes have coincided with a sustained period of record oil prices that has swamped the Gulf with funds. Increasingly, that capital is being put to work overseas. Of the $42bn invested in Turkey by overseas investors over the past two years, the Economy Ministry estimates a quarter has come from the Gulf.

"The GCC is critical," says Simsek. "It is in our neighbourhood and there are synergies. We are a major country that is growing and needs finance. The GCC is blessed with natural resources and finance.

"Turkey provides avenues for diversification. We do not have oil or gas, so we have developed an industrial base."

Since 2002, $40bn worth of state assets have been sold off by Ankara, compared with just $8bn worth in the previous 17 years. The sell-offs provide rich pickings for GCC investors.

Among the upcoming transactions that could entice Gulf investors is the sale of the government's remaining 75 per cent stake in Halkbank, which specialises in lending to small and medium-sized businesses. This is due to happen this year. An initial 25 per cent stake was offered in April 2007 and was 11 times oversubscribed.

"The bank is attractive to anybody, but particularly Gulf investors who want to invest in growth sectors," says Afa Boran, head of the Turkish liaison office of Dubai-based Shuaa Capital. "Gulf investors are looking at it."

More shares in Turk Telekom are also due to come to the market as the government sells its remaining 45 per cent holding. Oger Telecom, a subsidiary of Saudi Oger, bought 55 per cent for $6.6bn in November 2005. Up to 20 per cent of Ankara's remaining shares are expected to be sold in the second half of this year.

"Oger Telecom is an operator and does bring expertise," says Philip Khoury, Dubai-based head of research at Egyptian investment bank EFG-Hermes. "Oger Telecom was willing to pay a higher price than the other bidders and that is why it got the assets. But it is not fair to say that GCC investors are prone to overbid."

Ankara is trying to raise interest in several other sectors too. The country requires up to $125bn in investment in power generation over the next 20 years, according to the Economy Ministry. Next in line for privatisation are 20 electricity distribution networks and 12 power plants, as well as roads, railways, airports and ports. In addition, the government is looking to develop renewable and nuclear energy facilities.

"These are all things that we hope to get GCC investors interested in," says Simsek. "We have promoted these sectors [to GCC investors]. We are talking about big sums of money."

Ankara is also looking to foreign investors to help it meet the escalating demand for residential housing. Dubai's Emaar Properties made its latest investment in Turkey in February when it bought $400m worth of prime land in Istanbul, on which it will develop a mixed-used project covering 73,570 square metres.

Emaar is also looking for retail, commercial and hotel development opportunities with Atasay, its local joint venture partner in the Tuscan Valley residential project, that could require as much as $10bn in investment.

The Economy Ministry estimates that annual foreign investment in property stands at $3bn, although most of that currently comes from European buyers.

One of the factors restricting the interest of Gulf buyers has been land prices, which are more expensive in Turkey than in North Africa, where GCC investors have been more heavily involved.

In Egypt and elsewhere in North Africa, developers such as Emaar moved in early and have been able to purchase undeveloped land at low prices from governments keen to see it put to use. In Turkey, much of the land is privately owned and is sold at market rate.

In other areas of the economy, GCC investors already hold significant assets, however.

Dubai port operator DP World is developing the Yarimca container terminal at Izmit on the Asian side of Istanbul, where it also owns the land. The Riyadh-based Islamic Development Bank and Kuwait's Global Investment House both have stakes in TAV Airport Holding Company.

Such investments point to one of the most important aspects of the Turkish economy for investors, who see it as an access point to other markets. "Turkey is unique," says one Kuwait-based banker. "You have the European side and Asian side, and it really is a crossroads and a route into Europe that does not take you through London or Paris."

Kuwaiti banks have also bid for stakes in Turkish financial institutions, in competition with other investors, who entered the market at an earlier stage.

National Bank of Kuwait (NBK), which has outgrown its home market and is now expanding across the Middle East, bought a 40 per cent stake in Turkish Bank in mid-2007 for $160m. Commercial Bank of Kuwait bid for an Islamic bank with a view to establishing sharia-compliant services.

The appetite for Turkish assets is such that NBK Capital, the investment banking arm of NBK, sold its 100 per cent stake in Turkish edible oil company Yudum Foods to another Gulf investor, Saudi Arabia's Savola Group, for $71m after just six months.

For GCC investors, Turkey is a market that is near, familiar and one with which they have a cultural affinity, which makes it more attractive than other nearby emerging economies in Eastern Europe.

"The geographical and cultural proximity makes it easier for investors to understand the country," says Boran. "It is fairly easy to invest in Turkey. There are no restrictions and foreign investors are free from taxes on their capital gains."

Shuaa Capital has participated in Turkish stock market listings and also looks into private equity and real estate opportunities for its Gulf-based clients from its Istanbul base, as does Dubai's Abraaj Capital and NBK Capital, which also have teams on the ground.

In early February, Shuaa launched an Islamic hedge fund, which provides a new investment avenue for GCC investors who have previously avoided listed companies. Compared with European or US investors, GCC investors have limited experience in investing in emerging stock markets, and as a result have been wary of the volatile Istanbul Stock Exchange.

Instead, the bulk of GCC investment has been in private companies. "They go for industries that they can understand and manage," says Boran.

In this, GCC investors' strategy, like the sectors they are interested in, is in line with Ankara's. "It is more than money," says Simsek. "We are talking about partnerships. Property development, for instance, requires a lot of creativity. In Islamic banking, clearly there is a lot we can learn."

Turkey is just one of many destinations that GCC investors are exploring around the globe.

However, GCC investment in Turkey, although welcomed by Ankara, has been subject to public opposition that could make other markets more attractive. It is a problem the Turkish government recognises.

"Some deals get challenged, but this is not specific to GCC investors," says Simsek. "There are people [in Turkey] who want to continue to live in the 1930s. They don't realise globalisation has occurred. They don't want privatisation or reform. Globalisation is here and we are not afraid of it. We want to put our house in order and deal with it."

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